How to leverage the power of influencer marketing

influencer marketing
influencer marketing
Josh Steimle, CEO of MWI, is one of the world’s leading marketing influencers. Photo by Victor Fraile/studioEAST

Forbes Magazine recently named Josh Steimle as one of the 25 marketing influencers to watch this year. It’s little wonder why. Josh is founder and CEO of MWI, a multinational digital marketing agency with offices in the U.S., Hong Kong and China.

He’s author of Chief Marketing Offiers at Work, and his articles have been published in Time, Inc., TechCrunch, Mashable, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and VentureBeat. He’s presented at TEDx, ClickZ, AdTech, MOSA, Echelon, and CommunicAsia.

As a thought leader, Josh works with executives and entrepreneurs, guiding them on how to become influencers and thought leaders in their space. He’s also an international speaker on marketing and influence.

We’re connecting with Josh at a time when influencer marketing is growing exponentially. Why? A confluence of trends and changes are disrupting traditional marketing methods and making influencer marketing a must-have tactic. These factors include:

  • A renewed awareness of the power of brand, in particular personal brand
  • Done well, influencer marketing offers a strong ROI
  • Advertising is underperforming
  • Growth and power of social networks
  • Consumer/target market has a strong level of trust in credible influencers.
  • Tactics are focused. In other words, with influencer marketing your service/product is in front of your target market.

Influencer marketing for small businesses

But what about smaller businesses, agencies and solopreneurs? Can they use influencer marketing and have their own big wins? Josh looks at this important question and shares his insight an knowledge to help small businesses know if influencer marketing is right for them.

Josh, despite the rise in influencer marketing in the last few years, there is still confusion about it is. Can you give a definition?

A lot of us, when we hear the term “influencer marketing,” think of crazy young people on YouTube or Instagram or Snapchat, but influencer marketing has been around for decades, if not centuries. At a minimum, we’ve been exposed to influencer marketing since the first time a sports icon was put on a Wheaties box or was sponsored by Nike.

Today, influencer marketing is becoming a service that’s within reach of businesses that aren’t huge like General Mills and Nike, and so you see influencer marketing agencies popping up all over, offering to connect you with Instagram influencers to help you sell your makeup product, or YouTube influencers to help you sell a toy, or what have you.

I’m mostly interested in what I see as the next phase of influencer marketing which is the rise of the B2B influencer marketer, and I’m especially interested not in the idea of going out and hiring someone as an influencer to help your business, but in turning business owners and their teams into influencers.

The quickest example of what I mean is my own story. I started a digital marketing agency in 1999, and from 1999 until 2013 we never did over $500,000 in any given year. We were a small business, there were times when I was running the business solo, scraping by, trying to figure out how to grow.

In 2013 I started writing for Forbes, and I loved writing, so I did it a lot, and I then leveraged that into writing for a bunch of other publications, a book deal, and public speaking, and the next thing I know we’ve blown past $500K and we’re now a multi-million dollar agency with offices in multiple countries. There were other factors at play that allowed that growth to happen, like hiring a great partner at the same time I started writing for Forbes, but the lead generation that fueled the growth was 100% from the writing and speaking I was doing.

The reason writing generated leads was because I would write an article like “4 Tips For Hiring The Right SEO Firm” and someone who was doing a search on Google for “how to hire an SEO firm” would see my article at the top of their results and it caught them at exactly the right time in their buying cycle. They would click through, see my article on Forbes, and then think “Huh, well, this guy is writing for Forbes, so he must know what he’s talking about, and what he says sounds good…why don’t I just hire his agency?”

I turned myself into an influencer (although I hate calling myself that, it’s really awkward to say about yourself, but just to illustrate the point) and it is generating millions for my business. That’s the kind of influencer marketing I want to see other founders, CEOs, VPs, and other individuals at all levels doing to grow their businesses.

Influencer marketing vs word-of-mouth

A few years back, Adweek ran a piece on the power of influencer marketing. The piece appeared to equate influencer marketing with word-of-mouth praise/endorsement. Is that influencer marketing ? Or is the word-of-mouth element one of the many communication channels a business can access for influencer marketing?
Word of mouth advertising is absolutely influencer marketing, and we know—we KNOW—that word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing out there. People do business with people they know, like, and trust, and that’s why word of mouth shows up at the top of every single marketing effectiveness study, but we always look at those stats and say, “Oh yeah, WoM of there at the top . . . now let’s skip down and look at email marketing and social, that’s the stuff we can control.”

Many marketers have no idea how to harness influencer marketing beyond the sports star example, or nowadays hiring an influencer marketing agency. And often the golden goose of influencer marketing is sitting right there in your own company in the form of your CEO or some other motivated employee who would love to jump on YouTube and answer questions about your product or service.

The great thing about this kind of influencer marketing is that it combines word of mouth with every other channel. When you have a corporate blog and you post up there, but there’s no personality behind it, then you just have a blog.

Infusionsoft does a study every year on small business marketing tactics and they ask different questions each year so the last time they asked this question was in 2015 but they asked respondents about what marketing was the most effective for them, and no surprise—word of mouth was at the top with 62% of respondents saying it was the most effective marketing for them. Second place went down to 34%! That was email marketing to a company’s own list, by the way, but that’s a huge drop! Word of mouth is definitely the king. But where did blogging fit in? Way down at 13%.

Now I love blogging, I do a lot of it, and I think it’s great, but not if you’re publishing impersonal content. If you put a personality behind that content, an influencer, then that blog becomes not just a blog, but a form of influencer marketing—word of mouth marketing, because people feel like they know the person blogging and have a relationship with that person. It’s human to human marketing, H2H—I think Bryan Kramer coined that term—instead of mass production advertising.

And you can do this with anything—email, social media, the copy on your website, PR, ads, TV, radio—literally anything. Now instead of just doing ads, you’re combining what works about ads with word of mouth marketing, which is influencer marketing, and you’re getting a much, much higher rate of return.

Smaller businesses are hesitant about influencer marketing, and it’s easy to see why. If you’re not Under Armour, Yamaha, Acer or Cathay Pacific, it’s hard to imagine being able to target influencers successfully? How can small businesses get in touch with influencers?
Let me give one example of someone who did this successfully. A small software company based in Utah recently reached out to me, trying to get some PR. I had heard of this company, but I didn’t have any sort of relationship with them, so it was basically a cold pitch. But they did it perfectly because they followed these steps:

1. They had researched me and knew what kind of stories I was interested in writing.
2. They had read my blog post on how to pitch me to get me to write a story.
3. They followed my instructions, which were to effectively write a story and send it to me.

They sent me a story about how their company is “boring” (because c’mon, how interesting is flowchart software?), but how they were able to get all sorts of PR and attention through certain tactics, like attaching their work to pop culture (flowcharts about Star Wars, etc.).

The article they pitched to me was interesting, and it fit in my wheelhouse because I focus on marketing. I took their story, added some of my own experiences and thoughts to it, rewrote it to be in my own voice, submitted it to Entrepreneur, and it was just published yesterday as Your Business Can Be Boring But Your Marketing Can’t. Small company gets major press at no cost, other than some time, because they focused on what I as the “influencer” needed and wanted.

Every influencer wants and needs certain things, and it’s not always money. Figure out what the influencer is interested in, what he or she wants, and then meet that need. It really is as simple as that, but the mistake many small businesses make is they make it all about themselves and end up begging, rather than focusing on the influencer.

Do small businesses necessarily need to work with celebrities or other well-known figures, or does it depend more on objectives and market segment?
It depends—if you see a competitor using a celebrity and it’s working for them, maybe that’s something to consider reverse engineering.

But I’m much more a fan of turning yourself and your team into influencers. I think it produces better marketing, it’s more affordable, and it makes you a better leader and your team a better team. You can always supplement that by hiring outsiders, but it will never ring through to your customers in as authentic a manner as if you do it yourself.

Once you have an influencer’s attention, and a relationship is developing, are there any hard-and-fast rules about engaging with that influencer?
I’m going to focus on one type of outside influencer I do recommend working with—writers.

There are thousands of journalists and content creators willing to include your company, yourself, or your products or services in their articles or blog posts or videos or podcasts, and those are influencers that are definitely worth targeting, because they own an audience you want access to.

When it comes to targeting these writers I have two simple tips:

  1. Think about what they want.
  2. Make it easy for them to give you what you want.

What do writers want? They want to get paid, get famous, learn new things, change the world, or a combination of all four. Figure out how by writing an article about you or your company, that writer will get one or more of these things, and that will go a long way toward improving your pitch and your relationship with that writer.

To make it easy for the writer to write a story about you, write the story yourself. The writer doesn’t need to do 100% of the work herself. They often employ a researcher and an editor to help out, so why don’t you be the researcher? After all, the writer is about to help you get some major publicity. Go get some stats, some quotes from influential sources, and put together an article that you can pitch to the writer so that the write says “Wow, this is amazing, you just saved me hours of work, I can have this ready to publish in 30 minutes!”

Becoming an influencer

Can a small business itself actually become an influencer?

I think the easiest way to get started is to answer questions, per Jay Baer’s awesome book Youtility, and one of the easiest ways to start answering questions and get the hang of it is to use Quora.

Quora is a question and answer website, and anyone can set up an account there for free. Go there, sign up, take a look around to get the hang of it, and then find the questions that have to do with your business—and I guarantee 99% of you reading this will be able to find plenty of questions—and then start answering those questions.

Don’t sell your product or service as you answer questions, just try to be helpful and give the best advice you can. This is great training, because the more helpful you are, the more your answers get upvoted and so you can train yourself to give helpful answers.

Then you expand from Quora and you go to your customer service department and ask “What are the top five questions we get asked all the time?” And you go to your sales reps and ask “What are the top five questions potential customers ask?” You then take those questions, and you answer them. You answer them on your blog, you film yourself answering them on video and post it to YouTube and Instagram, you post those answers anywhere you can, and you don’t focus on getting your sales pitch in there, you focus on being genuinely helpful. When you do this, people learn to trust you, and they’ll figure out what you’re selling and they’ll come buy it without you ever pitching them.

If you keep this up, you’ll soon become the recognized authority in your field, and then you’re doing influencer marketing, with yourself as the influencer.

That’s how you get started. Anyone with an internet connection can do it, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the only employee, or if you have 1,000 employees, you can get started today.

You’ve been incredibly successful in your life and work and undoubtedly have a powerful impact on any product or service you associate yourself with. How do you evaluate pitches or requests to be involved in a brand and a part of their influencer marketing plans and growth?
Time, money, and impact. The less impact, the more money I want to get and the less time I want to spend. But the ideal fit is where the time required is not exorbitant, the pay is good, and the impact is meaningful to me.

I just had an offer recently to speak at a conference of tech entrepreneurs in Armenia—that’s high impact for me, it’s something I’m passionate about, so I’m willing to negotiate on time and money for an event like that. But if a large corporate wants me to come speak to their execs about B2B influencer marketing I’m going to charge them the maximum rate.

Who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking, and your approach to your work?
I already mentioned Jay Baer and Bryan Kramer, but also Gary Vaynerchuk, Michael Hyatt, Ann Handley, Joe Pulizzi, Clayton Christensen, John Boyd, Wil Reynolds, Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, my wife, my parents, my kids, my team at my agency MWI, and tons more.

Find Josh on Linkedin, follow him on Twitter, and find his Facebook page here.

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is a journalist and content marketer. She has worked for newspapers, news organizations and in the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K. She is a Director at Gocontentmarketing.com and is available for freelance assignments. Contact her via the contact form or Linkedin.

3 comments

  • I’m guessing the increase in influencer marketing went hand and hand and grows with social media that is taking over our lives. People turn to social media for news, advice, and information. Now that anyone can make a website, marketing has had to evolve to his niche groups that bloggers corner the market on. Good read.

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